Article from Wheeler:
SARASOTA, Fla. - The discussion always comes back to the years Josh Hamilton was away from the game. There were four of them, counting the partials and the days he doesn't remember; the days he gave over to Crown Royal and whatever substances got him his drug suspension; the days he spent in the tattooist's chair, covering his 235 pounds - which fast became fewer - as if he wanted them to go away; the days he would see things that weren't there, such as a SWAT team outside his apartment window.
Now, though, in a Reds uniform for the first time, with a chance to make a major-league roster for the first time; now that he's 25 and a husband and father and straight; now that the exhibition season has started and Jerry Narron can't write out a lineup without sticking him in it; now, at last, the Hamilton prattle is rounding back to pure, rarefied baseball. To all the years he was not away from the game, but in it with all his soul and body. Now, as his early batting average straddles .500, as balls whistle over outfielders' heads, as he blends into his surroundings with a familiarity that seems to make it simple, those are the years that count.
Back in North Carolina, Hamilton was the kind of athlete who could have had his way in any sport. But for him, there was no sport like baseball.
"Josh played the game from the time he was very young, and he focused on baseball," said Reds coach Johnny Narron, who, as a father of a son who played with and against the man-child, has watched and sometimes coached Hamilton since way back when. "Coming up, he played an awful lot of games in the spring, summer and fall. He knows the game and he's been around people who know the game; and he applies it.
"When he was a kid, Josh was so dominant that parents were asking directors of leagues to move him up so he wouldn't hurt somebody. He hit the ball so well and threw the ball so hard that it was always a concern."
By the time Hamilton was a teenager, Narron was managing the "showcase" team, as they called it, and, in his professional capacity as a scout for the Atlanta Braves, tracking the prodigy's progress. There was only one reservation about the kid's talent or makeup or total package. When he graduated from high school, would he be taken as the first overall draft pick as a pitcher, or would be taken with the first pick as a hitter?
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who did the picking and bestowed upon Hamilton a record signing bonus, asked the kid, whose answer was that he didn't want to let a ballgame go by without playing in it. Nor did the experts want him to.
"That was one of the things the scouts talked a lot about," Narron recalled. "He was throwing the ball 94, 95 miles an hour, and sometimes 97 or 98 off the mound, and he was a left-hander with movement in high school (250 strikeouts in 143 innings over his last two years). But the thing the scouts all agreed on was that he was so talented athletically, and with all the tools he possessed, he needed to play every day. And if that didn't work out, they could possibly put him on the mound later."
By the look of things lately - and in spite of the fact that Hamilton has blithely offered his services to Jerry Narron as a late-inning reliever - that's not likely to happen. Take Saturday, against the Twins at Ed Smith Stadium.
In his first at-bat, Hamilton, after taking a strike and fouling another, worked the count full before bouncing a double over the wall in left-center. In his second, he smoked the first pitch to right-center for another double. In his third, he ripped the first pitch to left for a single. In his fourth, he walked. In his fifth, he popped up. In no at-bat did he swing and miss even once. In none did he lurch to pull the ball, as young power hitters so infamously do.
It was the kind of performance that would seem to make Hamilton's roster spot all the more inevitable. As a Rule 5 selection, the Reds are obligated to keep the five-tooler on the major-league team or return him to Tampa Bay. With his possibilities, they're loath to do the latter.
And frankly, Hamilton has given them no reason to. Forget his neon potential for a moment, and consider just his utility value. Unlike Wily Mo Pena, a man of similar physical wherewithal, Hamilton is possessed of a natural's feel for the game. He runs the bases with above-average speed and savvy. He has an arm like Homer Bailey's. And while we haven't yet seen much of his glove, he wears it proudly.
"I still think defense is probably my best strength," Hamilton said Sunday, between a batting cage session with Johnny Narron and hopping on the bus to Bradenton, where he played center field and batted cleanup.
It was in Bradenton, in Thursday's first game of the spring, that Hamilton fully and finally got back that old baseball feeling. He had been reinstated last June, and played in 15 Class A games before shutting down for arthroscopic surgery on his meniscus. He had worked out all winter with both Narrons. For a while, he had even lived at a ballpark in Clearwater, tending the field for the privilege of practicing on it when the day was done. All of that was swell. But it wasn't this.
"I can't describe how good it feels to be back out here and be around my teammates and be on the field and pat my glove before pitches and be out here in the sunshine," Hamilton said. He didn't mention how good it felt, that first game in Bradenton, to club a 500-foot home run over the batter's eye in straightaway center. And that wasn't the best part of the day.
"I rode home with my wife," he said - with respect to temptation, he doesn't even carry car keys - "and I still had my uniform on, and we stopped at a Dairy Queen and ate, and it almost felt like I was back in Legion ball. When I got home, I took my uniform off and I just looked and it and was kind of awestruck that I was wearing it again."
Meanwhile, those observing Hamilton's comeback have been awestruck not only by his power, but by his performance at large. No amount of rust can conceal the shimmering fact that the Reds have a ballplayer on their hands.
"The thing I've liked and been encouraged by," said Johnny Narron, whose job description includes personal support for Hamilton, "is how well he's been able to adapt and be calm and quiet and at ease at the plate. Early on, my concern was that he would be too violent and overly aggressive. But I've seen that relaxation come over him. That's real important to me.
"He's also got great eyesight. He even comments to me how well he sees the ball to the bat and even coming back off the bat, which I don't know if that's possible or not."
Then again, who would have thought it possible for a guy in his first game with a big-league team, after nearly four years out of baseball, to hit a 500-home run, and then go 8-for-15, and do it all under the scrutiny of national media, while fighting a drug addiction?
It's still a grim gauntlet that Hamilton has to run, and there's no telling, at this early point, how its perils will play out. But in the meantime, his first few days have prompted another pertinent question:
Who would have thought the Reds would come up with a player like this?